The bear has awoken. After turning inward and hibernating for the past two decades, he has shaken himself back to wakefulness. And boy is he hungry. First on the menu was Crimea – a tasty tidbit that Russia’s always considered to be its own, and has now annexed without any real opposition from the US, the EU, NATO or the UN.
The reality is almost childishly simple: the bear saw what he wanted, and the bear devoured it, because nobody was around to make him do otherwise. Consequently, Crimea is no longer Ukrainian, and barring a serious shooting war, it will never be again. For a war-weary America, and an economically strained EU (read: Germany) haunted by its own memories of a generation lost in this part of the world 70 years ago, a war with Russia isn’t even in the contingency plans, much less on the first page of Merkel’s agenda.
How did Russia pull it off? First, by demonizing the pro-western forces who overthrew Ukraine’s corrupt government. Putin applied the “Fascist” label to his enemies with great understanding of his domestic political audience. Russia soaked Crimea with a generation’s worth of its blood during the Great Patriotic War against the German Fascists: Simferopol, Sevastopol, Feodosiya, Kerch… these places that western reporters struggle to pronounce are burned into the collective memory of the Russian people with a bittersweet pride. Is there a Russian alive today who doesn’t nod with solemn respect at these memories, especially when a new , ostensibly Fascist threat was called out on this same hallowed Crimean ground?
Second, the Russians stacked the vote & intimidated the opposition. Not discussed much in the Russian press these days is the Soviet-era ethnic engineering that guaranteed the recent referendum results. Even without the injection of a Russian majority in the 1950s following the mass executions and deportations of Ukrainians, Tartars and other minorities, it should come as no surprise that a vote taking place under the sloping noses of Russian BTRs would produce results in perfect alignment with the Kremlin’s will.
Third, the west has absolutely no appetite (or budget) for war. Putin know this very well. He has met with, watched and analyzed his opponents, all of whom are necessarily bound to a shorter time-line given their much more brief political half-lives, and he knows that none of them can play the long game. Neither they nor their constituencies have a desire to upset comfortable lives or disturb their delicate economies for a mere idea or principle.
The European 21st century view is that history has stopped evolving, and Europe’s borders are set in place. This was the same view prevailing in salons across the continent precisely a century ago, in the spring of 1914. In today’s modern, post-war Europe, there is no room for such quaint and antiquated notions like fighting in defense of a nation’s liberty or territorial integrity, if that nation lies beyond the pale. Europe might fight against a physical threat like terrorism, especially if it involves sending a few troops to a distant place, but will they fight just outside their own backyard for an intellectual or moral ideal that echoes the moral constructs of an earlier century? No, that is not very likely at all to be the case.
And Putin sees this, very clearly. More clearly than most western analysts. He has pored over the results of the cultural and economic studies of each and every nation that might try to foil his plans. He’s taken their temperature, gauged their willingness to step into the fray. Having considered all the angles, he’s come to a result favoring continued national expansion via military means. He tested the west with Georgia, taking the west’s inaction as confirmation, and has taken a more dramatic step in Crimea. Given the continued reinforcement of our hollow words, he can now can be expected to accelerate the pace in eastern Ukraine.
There, the situation is a near-mirror of the Sudetenland in 1938, where Hitler’s pre-war playbook achieved a similarly bloodless victory of national annexation empowered by shrugging acquiescence. Both leaders boldly pursued conquest despite the headwinds of lukewarm European bluster. Grossdeutschland then, Greater Russia now, it’s the same old story, and it follows a predictable sequence of events.
The pretext in both scenarios is based on phony concerns of ethnic violence against a minority population on the edges of the neighboring nation. But there, they diverge. Hitler went for a straight invasion, no subtlety. Putin takes a more incremental approach, creating a crisis by accelerating the perception of a crisis – like a tornado, the perception feeds on itself and creates its own reality. Putin’s cause is helped by the foreign press, who in their ravenous hunger to fill the 24 hour news cycle, add emotion by dutifully running endless loops of the most violent moments in the political drama performed by Putin’s supporters on the world stage.
The next steps we’ve already seen played out fully in Crimea, and can anticipate to revisit shortly in eastern Ukraine: after an invasion to “restore order”, the Kremlin’s political credibility is enhanced by a wildly skewed referendum confirming the facts already stamped into the ground by 16,000 pairs of combat boots.
Viewing the predictable results, Putin then plays the democrat, shrugging and claiming that “it’s the will of the people” to unite themselves with Russia. A few weeks of headlines, and it’s all a done deal, bloodless, complete and effectively irreversible. He gives the west time to be distracted by latest crisis or social trend, and then he patiently goes back to work restoring the next member of Russia’s once-and-future empire.
This strategy has worked so well for Putin because, like those negotiating with Hitler in the late ‘30s, nations horribly scarred by the First World War, nations understandably anxious to avoid a Second, the western leaders of our time and the populations that empower them not only share that previous generation’s deep fear of another European war, they are utterly frozen in place by the mere thought, a prospect which they cannot consider because it is so alien to all their assumptions about what the future would and should hold for the world.
Europe and especially the USA exclaim disparagingly about Russia’s 19th century methods in a 21st century world, accusing Russia of being the knuckle-dragging Neanderthal on the international block. But they’re missing the point entirely – Russia is not living in the 21st century. And her leaders couldn’t possibly care less about western hand-wringing, hurt feelings, or being perceived as a nation insufficiently sophisticated for this modern era. They know what works in their neighborhood, their national pride is on the rise, they want their empire back. And they mean to take it.
Putin judged that his opponents lacked the stomach for real conflict, and events have confirmed his take. In response to armed invasion, the west isn’t rattling sabers, it’s just jingling pocket change, hoping that the Russians can be bribed into compliance with Europe’s will. To the Russians, this is laughable, but those in the west are doubling-down on this strategy, because the power of the purse is the best (and perhaps only) stick left to them.
Consequently, western pundits advocate freezing the assets of the Russian “oligarchs”, thinking that this will undermine Putin’s support among them: they couldn’t be more wrong. Although it may be a tragedy in those oligarchs’ eyes when they are barred from spending the Summer in their mansions along the Côte d’Azur, such “sanctions” are trivial, mere symbols, and they’ll probably backfire.
In Putin’s eyes, asset freezing makes these wealthy and influential people that much more dependent on him, and the pressures might help highlight where their true allegiances lie. Suffering personal financial loss could raise their political capital, aligning them more closely with the Kremlin under a banner of false patriotism. This is assuming that anything remains in the western banks worth freezing anyway – it’s probably all been whisked away to untouchable locations with a key stroke and a phone call, given the west’s frequent and detailed warnings of its intended courses of action in this arena.
Others have thought more broadly about how to bring the Russian bear to heel, and strategic economic warfare has been proposed in various forms. Ideas range from light sanctions to those more severe, to outright trade embargoes, and the more adventurous have floated ideas like undermining the currency, literally trying to crash the ruble, and thereby the country, into insolvency. Setting aside for a moment how these various measures would likely backfire in an interconnected global economy that is excruciatingly delicate, does anyone seriously believe that Putin will pull back from his territorial gains in the Ukraine because of mere economic hardship?
Not this leader. Vladimir Putin is a classic Russian strong man, a macho near-dictator of a type that can be traced straight back to Peter the Great and beyond. And history shows that the Russians like their leaders that way: strong, defiant, bold and aggressive. Harsh to their enemies and benevolent to their friends: think Don Corleone, rather than Abraham Lincoln.
If the west does make Russia suffer economically as Putin is trying to restore their formerly great empire, the people will dig in and support him all the more strongly. The Russians have always suffered, it’s in their blood, it’s part of the culture: a global economic war against them would give it more meaning and focus, but it would not deter them. Defying the west has the effect of elevating national pride and Putin’s status simultaneously in the eyes of the Russian nation, rather than undermining it.
Where will the bear go hunting next?
The one place I would not want to be today is Belarus, followed by the Baltic republics – the only dike standing between the Baltics and drowning beneath a deluge of white, blue and red banners may well be the dubious (?) security promised by their NATO membership. I say this not because I doubt NATO’s commitments, but because I think that NATO member status may prove more of a temptation than a deterrent to Putin in this case.
I sense that for Putin, the Baltics’ status in NATO is an implicit challenge, a glove across the cheek, a perhaps irresistible goad to his growing boldness and pride. After all, these countries were Russian before the First World War, and part of the Soviet Empire for long decades afterwards. They retain significant Russian minorities today.
I wonder, how much would Russia’s national pride be bolstered by openly defying NATO and the EU by rolling the tanks into Riga? And what would Putin really risk by staring down the west during a few weeks of high-stakes brinksmanship in the Baltics?
It’s an interesting scenario to game out. Once our economic sanctions have been tried and found wanting, what then? Invasion? Putin’s troops could retreat faster than the west could strike overland, and airstrikes on a modern European city are unthinkable. Moreover, would the west really consider getting into a shooting war over Latvian sovereignty in the first place? How about for Belarus? Forget about it.
So what’s the threat, really?
Russia is a threat to its immediate neighbors, but is this resurgent bear an actual threat to the USA? Not militarily speaking. Russia remains far outmatched versus NATO in conventional warfare, especially in the air and on the seas (or under them). Only their strategic and tactical nukes pose a serious threat to the west, but one thing that the Cold War taught us is that nuclear war is the least likely of all scenarios.
No, the threat is more subtle than that, and it’s really a perception problem: our tepid responses to Russia’s blatantly illegal invasion and annexation of Crimea are a threat to us, and our allies. It’s not just a question of standing up to the bully, it’s a question of knowing what to do, of being able to reach into our national quiver and choose the right arrow. And we don’t seem to know which one to select. We appear to be paralyzed with indecision.
Our remaining options are reminiscent of the old joke about how the unarmed British police fight crime. The bobby chases a criminal down the street, blowing his whistle and yelling: “Stop I say, or I’ll blow my whistle again!”
And that’s what the west is doing – blowing a whistle while the bear enjoys his meal and pointedly ignores us. This interaction between the great powers is being watched very carefully in unfriendly places around the globe. After all, if a post-Soviet Russia, greatly weakened from its glory days, can thumb its nose at Washington and Brussels with impunity, this after rolling armor across a nation that once aspired to NATO membership and sits astride Europe’s natural gas lifeline, what’s to discourage Putin from restoring the rest of the jewels of the old Soviet empire when and how he sees fit?
Putin doesn’t have to worry about elections, or opinion polls. He will never be a lame duck or have to ask Congress for authorization to use the military. Yes, there is the Duma – but talk about a rubber stamp… Most importantly, Russia has a veto and a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, so any peaceful opposition in a global forum effectively ends before it begins.
With a whimper
Sometimes, it’s not wars that change maps. Sometimes maps change because the dread of war stops nations dead in their tracks, freezing hearts with fear when bravery and bold thinking are most needed.
Putin has stared across that shiny long table lined with mineral water bottles, the west has blinked and shuffled its position papers away, and now the bear is contentedly digesting his most recent meal.
While eyeing his next.